Read a sample from BURNED by Benedict Jacka
The seventh novel in this compelling urban fantasy series featuring Alex Verus, the Camden-based mage who just can't stay out of trouble despite his ability to see the future. Perfect for fans of Jim Butcher or Ben Aaronovitch
The call came just before seven.
It was a Saturday evening in December. I’d closed late; it was the last weekend before Christmas, and the shop had been packed all day. It was past six when I finally shooed out the last customers, shut and locked the door and turned off the lights before heading upstairs. Hermes had snuck in again, and was lying curled up on my armchair, the white tip of his bushy tail tucked in around his nose. I dropped on to the sofa with a yawn and started going through my emails.
My eyelids were drifting closed when the communicator chimed. I’d been so drowsy I’d barely even seen it coming. Hermes opened one amber eye and watched as I pulled myself to my feet, took out the blue-purple disc from my drawer and activated it. A miniature holographic figure in blue light materialised on top of the disc. ‘Hey, Talisid,’ I said, setting the disc down on my desk.
‘Are you alone?’
‘There’s no good way to tell you this,’ Talisid said. ‘Levistus has sentenced you to death. You’re to be executed in one week.’
Hermes lifted his head. He shifted position slightly as he did so, black forepaws stretching straight out, white neck and chest exposed as he looked at me and the image of Talisid. With his colouring, he looked exactly like a larger-than-average English red fox. Blink foxes don’t have any visible traits that set them apart from mundane foxes; only the look in the eyes gave any hint that—
‘Alex?’ Talisid said. ‘Did you hear me?’
I’d been staring at Hermes. I’d heard Talisid’s words, but they weren’t registering. ‘Yeah,’ I said. I found myself looking at the fur on Hermes’ back and tail, watching the hairs move and shift. ‘What?’
‘I can’t talk long,’ Talisid said. ‘There was a closed Council session. The resolution goes into effect one week from today at 6 p.m. Once it does, you’ll be an outlaw. Your property can be seized and any mage or Council representative of the British Isles can take hostile action against you with no legal repercussions.’
‘Yes. There’s more. The resolution also applies to your dependents. That means all three of the rest of your team. Luna Mancuso, Anne Walker, Variam Singh. Their names are listed with yours.’
I stared at Talisid.
Talisid looked behind him at something out of view. ‘I have to go. I’ll call in an hour or two and we’ll decide what to do. There may be some way around this.’
‘. . . Okay.’
‘We’ll speak soon.’ Talisid’s image winked out.
I found myself alone in the room with Hermes. I walked away from the desk and dropped back on to the sofa in the same spot I’d been sitting in. It was still warm. The call had taken less than sixty seconds.
I felt stunned, disconnected. None of this seemed real. Earlier in the year, I’d become a Keeper auxiliary, and in the months since, I’d spent more and more time working with them, taking on new cases almost every week. I’d thought that things had been going better with the Council, not worse. Now – this. I tried to think, work out how this could have happened so fast, but my thoughts kept slipping away. I reached for my phone and touched the number of a contact. It rang five times before it was picked up. ‘Hey, Alex.’
‘Luna,’ I said. ‘We’ve got a problem.’ I gave her the news in a few short sentences.
Once I’d finished, there was a pause. ‘Oh, shit,’ Luna said at last.
‘Have we got a plan?’
‘Not over the phone.’
‘Okay. What should I do?’
‘Get Anne,’ I said. ‘Get Vari.’
‘Got it.’ Luna hung up.
I set the phone down and looked at it. The flat was quiet; the only noise was the sound of the city outside. An aeroplane was passing by far above, the sound drifting down through the Camden streets.
Luna had asked if I had a plan. I didn’t.
There was a thump as Hermes jumped to the floor. I turned to see him trot across the carpet to where my hand was dangling off the edge of the sofa. He sniffed my fingers and looked up at me, amber eyes alert and questioning.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, forcing a smile. ‘We’ll figure something out.’
Hermes sat back on his hind legs. I looked over him towards the window and to the night sky beyond.
* * *
When Luna sets her mind to something, she doesn’t hang around. The gang started arriving within the hour.
Variam showed up first. I felt the signature of the gate spell from the storeroom on the ground floor, followed by the sound of Variam bounding up the stairs two at a time. He came striding through the door, wide awake and quick. ‘Luna told me,’ he said. ‘It’s true? Levistus?’
‘Let’s wait until everyone’s here.’
Variam nodded, probably assuming that I was doing it that way because it was more efficient. ‘Were you at a ceremony?’ I asked.
‘Sort of,’ Variam said. He was wearing his black turban and the dark red formal robes that Arachne had made for him last year. They were the dark red of glowing coals, the colour chosen to set off his brown skin. It was hard to be sure, but the robes looked less baggy on him than they had been. Variam’s small, but ever since starting his apprenticeship with Landis he’d been putting on muscle. ‘Was a drinks thing.’
‘Landis okay with you leaving?’
‘Yeah, but he’s going to want an explanation when I get back.’
I was spared from having to reply to that by the signature of another gate spell. We both looked towards the door as Luna walked in. ‘Anne’s on her way,’ she said.
‘I think she had someone with her,’ Luna said. She was wearing a pale close-fitting top and dark leggings, and her hair was up in a ponytail, slightly matted with sweat; she must have come from the gym without stopping to change. ‘But she got the message.’
‘You were out duelling?’ Variam asked.
‘Some of us don’t get to go to fancy parties.’
‘Excuse me?’ Variam said, obviously annoyed. ‘I asked if you wanted to come.’
‘Yeah, how did you think that was going to play out, again?’
‘Well, sorry for trying to—’
‘Jesus!’ I said. ‘You two are literally under sentence of death and you’re still doing this? Really?’
Luna and Variam shut up, looking away. We waited in silence.
Anne arrived just before eight. She climbed the stairs more slowly than Luna and Variam had, and she paused in the doorway, looking between me and Luna and Variam. ‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ she said in her soft voice.
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘Take a seat.’
‘Ah . . .’ Anne hesitated. ‘There’s something I should probably tell you first.’
‘What is it?’
‘I asked someone else to come.’ Anne said. She didn’t look comfortable. ‘I hope that’s okay.’
‘What?’ Variam said. ‘Who?’
‘He’s downstairs,’ Anne said. ‘Outside the shop.’ She looked at me, obviously waiting for my response.
I looked ahead through the futures, picking out the one in which I rose and left the room. I followed my future self downstairs and through the shop, watching as he opened the door and looked out into the street to see—
I snapped back to the present and watched the future vanish. I stared at Anne. ‘Him?’
‘He was there when I got the call,’ Anne said defensively.
And what the hell was he doing at your place? I didn’t ask. Luna looked at Anne. ‘Who are you guys talking about?
‘You know how things ended last time,’ I told Anne. ‘Why is he even here?’
‘Probably because of me,’ Anne said. She looked straight at me. ‘I know you two have had problems, but we need the help.’
I looked away. Variam looked between the two of us. ‘Okay, are you two going to spit out the name any time soon? Because this is getting old.’
‘Fine.’ I got to my feet and walked downstairs, following the path that my future self had taken a minute ago.
The shop floor was dark and I switched on the light, the glow bathing the room. Yellow-white light glimmered back at me, refracted through crystal balls and glinting off the steel of the knives and ritual daggers laid out on the far table. I unlocked the shop door and opened it. Cold air rushed in, dry and near-freezing and carrying the scent of winter.
The boy – young man, really – was standing out on the pavement, his breath making white puffs in the air. He wore a thick coat and his black hair was peeking out from under a woollen cap. No glasses this time; he’d apparently lost them since I’d last seen him. We looked at each other.
‘Sonder,’ I said.
‘Hi,’ Sonder said.
There was a pause. ‘It’s kind of cold,’ Sonder said. ‘Can I come in?’
I thought about it for just long enough to make it clear that I was thinking about it, then stepped aside. Sonder entered and I shut the door behind him. The sounds of the street faded and we were alone in the shop.
‘Okay,’ I said, turning to Sonder. ‘Why are you here?’
‘I know what Anne told you. Are you here to help Anne, or the rest of us?’
Sonder hesitated. I saw the futures shift between possible answers, then die away, and I knew I wasn’t going to get a reply. ‘The guy behind this is Levistus,’ I said. ‘You understand what you’re risking, getting involved with us?’
Sonder frowned slightly. ‘I’m not an idiot.’
I sighed slightly. ‘Come on up.’ No one else was coming. I just wished I knew whether adding Sonder would make things better or worse.
* * *
Variam and Luna didn’t react when I led Sonder into the living room – Anne had obviously broken the news to them while I’d been downstairs. Neither Luna nor Variam looked one hundred per cent enthusiastic – Variam had never liked Sonder all that much, and while Luna and Sonder had been sort-of-friends in the early months of Luna’s apprenticeship, they’d never been close. With hindsight, that friendship had probably been more on Sonder’s part than on Luna’s. Luna’s early contacts in magical society had been few and far between, and to begin with having a mage her age who actually treated her well had probably been a nice change, but as she’d started to get to know people on her own initiative she’d drifted away. Sonder had wanted to stay friends – actually, more than friends – and Luna had given him a fairly definite rejection. I still didn’t know how well Sonder had taken that.
Sonder was looking around the living room. ‘This brings back memories.’
‘Thanks for coming,’ Anne said.
‘Like I promised,’ Sonder said. ‘You guys still play Settlers?’
‘We’ve had a bit less time to spare for that stuff lately,’ I said.
‘You going to take a seat?’ Variam asked.
‘Oh, sure.’ Sonder took a step forward, taking a final glance around as he did, and paused. ‘Uh, what’s with the fox?’
Hermes was sitting by the doorpost to my bedroom, ears pricked up and tail curled around his forepaws. He’d sat watching as everyone else arrived, and now he returned Sonder’s gaze blandly.
Why don’t you ask him?’ I said.
Sonder gave me a puzzled look.
‘His name’s Hermes and he lives here,’ I said. ‘Look, we’re a little pushed for time. Is it okay if we save the recaps for later?’
A chime came from the desk. Luna twisted around. ‘Talisid?’
I nodded and went over to pick up the communicator focus. Sonder took a seat a little way away from the others as I walked back, set the disc down on the coffee table in the middle of everyone and activated it.
Blue light flickered, materialising into the figure of Talisid. He scanned left and right, looking at everyone’s faces, pausing very briefly at the sight of Sonder before turning back to the others. The only one he didn’t register was Hermes, outside the radius of the focus’s visual field. ‘You’re all here. Good.’
‘Can you talk freely?’ I asked.
‘Then,’ I said, ‘let’s hear it from the beginning.’
‘The Council met this afternoon,’ Talisid said. ‘It was a closed session of the Senior Council only. There were two items on the agenda, and the proposal for your execution was one of them. Levistus was the author. The vote was three to one.’
The Light Council is the decision-making body of the Light mages of Britain. It has thirteen members: six non-voting, known as the Junior Council, and seven voting, known as the Senior Council. Beneath them is a sprawling organisation and bureaucracy (of which Talisid’s a member) but it’s those seven members of the Senior Council who call the shots.
The knowledge that the Senior Council had authorised this sent a chill through me. Within Britain, the Senior Council have nearly absolute power. There are few laws that restrict them, and there’s no higher authority to appeal to. If they wanted me dead . . .
‘What charge?’ Sonder asked.
‘Conspiracy and sedition against the Light Council.’
‘What conspiracy?’ Luna said.
‘The resolution doesn’t specify.’
‘They have to show some kind of evidence,’ Variam said. ‘Don’t they?’
‘No, they don’t,’ I said. ‘Keepers do, because they answer to the Senior Council. The Senior Council doesn’t answer to anyone.’ I looked at Sonder to see if he’d disagree. He didn’t.
‘That’s all it takes?’ Luna said, incredulous. ‘Three votes?’
‘There were only four present.’
‘How is this even possible?’ I said. I managed to keep my voice steady, but it wasn’t easy. ‘It’s the middle of December. The Council’s supposed to be in recess.’
‘Which is undoubtedly the reason this is happening now,’ Talisid said. ‘Levistus called an emergency session at exactly the time at which those Senior Council members most likely to oppose him were out of the country. By contrast, his two closest supporters were both attending. Four is enough for a quorum.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So if they’ve passed the resolution, why aren’t Keepers kicking my door down right now?’
‘They can’t,’ Sonder said.
Everyone turned to look at Sonder. ‘They didn’t have full attendance,’ Sonder explained. ‘The Council can pass resolutions with a quorum of four, but not emergency resolutions.’
‘Sonder’s correct,’ Talisid said. ‘Any resolution passed with less than full Senior Council attendance has a one-week delay before it goes into effect. It’s a safety measure designed to prevent quorum abuses.’
‘A safety measure?’ Luna said. ‘So what, we get a week to live instead?’
‘How is this even possible?’ Variam said. ‘The Council can’t just pass death sentences like that. There has to be a trial or something.’
‘I think we just had it,’ I said.
‘This is bullshit,’ Variam said. ‘I was there for Cerulean’s trial in the spring. It took them two months to even schedule it, and he wasn’t even there!’
‘Cerulean was a Keeper,’ Sonder said. ‘Well, is a Keeper . . . I mean, they haven’t actually formally expelled him, and . . . anyway. They can’t pass sentence on a Light mage without a trial, but . . .’
‘But I’m not a Light mage,’ I finished. ‘What’s the exact definition of a Light mage as far as this goes?’
‘You have to either be recognised by the Council, or you have to have an official Council position,’ Sonder said. ‘Like being a Keeper.’
‘You’re kind of a Keeper,’ Luna said.
‘I’m a Keeper auxiliary,’ I said. ‘I’m guessing that doesn’t count.’
‘I’m afraid it doesn’t,’ Talisid said.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘So that’s me. What about Luna, Variam and Anne? Why are they caught in this?’
‘The resolution applies to you and to your dependents,’ Talisid said. ‘That has a very specific meaning in Council law. A dependent is anyone for whom you’ve taken sole responsibility. Luna falls into that category due to being your apprentice. Anne and Variam also, since you sponsored them for the apprentice programme.’
‘But I didn’t sponsor them for the apprentice programme! I just—’
‘I know,’ Talisid said. ‘Unfortunately, it seems you did so well enough that the Council was convinced.’
I felt an ugly sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. When I’d first met Anne and Variam, they’d been in the Light apprentice programme, sponsored by the rakshasa Jagadev. After Jagadev kicked them out, I’d invited Anne and Variam to live with me, and generally tried to give the impression to the mages who ran the apprentice programme that I’d taken over their sponsorship. It had worked – even though they technically weren’t allowed to be there any more, no one had challenged me over it. I’d kept them in the apprentice programme.
And by doing so, I might just have killed them.
‘Can’t we challenge that?’ Sonder said. ‘If they were never officially sponsored . . .’
‘It would be difficult,’ Talisid said. ‘They were de facto sponsorship members for long enough to be officially recognised.’
‘But they were never actually signed in, right?’ Sonder said. ‘If we made the Council admit that they never officially went through the ceremony—’
‘Then it would just be me and Alex getting executed instead?’ Luna asked.
‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ Sonder said hurriedly. ‘I just, um . . .’
‘Really?’ Luna said. Her voice was icy. ‘Then what did you mean?’
‘I’m afraid it’s a moot point,’ Talisid said before Sonder could reply. ‘Any legal challenge would take far too long. Much more than a week.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Important question. You said Anne, Luna and Vari’s names are on this resolution. Are they listed as being my dependents, or are they listed independently of whether they’re my dependents?’
Talisid’s image reached for a piece of paper. ‘The first,’ Talisid said after a moment’s pause. ‘The exact wording is “and his dependents, to whit.”’
‘Then if they weren’t my dependents, they wouldn’t be covered by the resolution. Yes?’
Talisid looked troubled. ‘Yes. However, I’d feel happier if you were working against the resolution itself.’
‘What are you getting at?’ Variam asked me.
‘Contingency plans. Okay, Talisid. How do we get out of this?’
‘The resolution was passed by the Senior Council,’ Talisid said. ‘It can be overturned by the Senior Council.’
‘The purpose of the week’s delay is to allow for opposing votes,’ Talisid said. ‘If an absent Council member sends in his vote during that time, the vote is treated as if it had been made at the meeting itself.’
‘And the vote was three to one,’ I said. ‘So if the three Senior Council who weren’t there vote against it . . . ?’
‘It would only take two. Council resolutions require a majority vote.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘What are the options?’
‘The four members of the Senior Council present were Levistus, Alma, Sal Sarque and Bahamus,’ Talisid said. ‘That leaves three yet to vote: Spire, Druss the Red and Undaaris. Druss should be the easiest to convince: if Levistus wants to destroy you, Druss will probably vote the other way for no other reason than to oppose him.’
‘And the other two?’
‘Unclear. Both are swing voters not aligned with either Levistus or Druss.’
‘So we’ll have to convince them?’
‘Can you arrange a meeting?’
‘Wait,’ Sonder said. ‘They’re Senior Council. You can’t just walk up and—’
‘No guarantees, but yes, probably,’ Talisid said. ‘In this context, a refusal will simply be a fast way of saying no.’
Sonder turned to stare. ‘How soon?’ I asked.
‘Both are out of the country, but they’re scheduled to return before Monday. I should have something for you by tomorrow.’
‘Is there anything else we can do?’
‘At present, no,’ Talisid said. ‘Ah, one other thing. While we are pursuing the political angle, I would counsel against taking any . . . extreme . . . measures in an attempt to resolve the problem independently. It would complicate any potential solution.’
‘We’ll keep that in mind.’
‘Until tomorrow, then.’ Talisid paused, looking around the circle. ‘For now, just hold on. I promise I’ll do everything I can.’
I nodded. Talisid’s image winked out and the communicator went dark.
‘Everything he can,’ Variam muttered. ‘Believe that when I see it.’
‘He’s not going to screw us, is he?’ Luna asked.
‘Wait, what?’ Sonder said. ‘Why would he screw you?’
‘I know we’ve had our disagreements with Talisid,’ I said. ‘But he’s never actually betrayed us or lied to us.’
‘That we know about,’ Luna pointed out.
‘If he really wanted to screw us over, he wouldn’t have made this call at all,’ I said. ‘He could have just waited. It’s not like I have many other friends on the Council to give me the news.’
‘Getting the news early doesn’t help much if we can’t do anything about it,’ Variam said.
‘He’s given us time.’
‘Yeah, but is it actually going to help?’ Luna asked. ‘This whole getting votes thing – is it going to work?’
‘Sonder?’ I said. ‘You’re the expert on Council politics.’
‘I’m not really an expert. I wasn’t even back in the country until . . .’
‘You know more than the rest of us,’ I said. ‘Does what he said match up with what you know?’
‘I guess,’ Sonder said reluctantly. Sonder is on the political track for the Light mages, and he’s become one of the Council’s rising stars. He’d spent last autumn and winter in Washington, making contacts with the North American Council, and now he had some sort of position with the Keeper bureaucracy. ‘I mean, yes, Druss and Levistus are enemies, everyone knows that. It’s the whole Isolationist-Director thing. Spire’s supposed to mostly represent independents. Undaaris kind of goes all over the place.’
‘So they’re swing votes, like he said.’
‘But we only need one of them?’ Luna said.
‘Not exactly,’ I said. ‘You heard what Talisid said. Any of those three can send in their votes after the meeting. He didn’t say which way. If one of them votes for Levistus’s proposal . . .’
‘Then we’re screwed,’ Variam said. He looked grim. ‘What are the odds like?’
‘We need two out of three to vote in our favour,’ I said. ‘Three very powerful, very important mages who probably have a lot of things they’d rather be doing than helping us. And if any of them votes against us, then it’s over. And I’m pretty sure Levistus has got a lot more ways of buying votes than we do.’
Silence fell. I didn’t look around or raise my head. I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t want to say it.
‘Okay,’ Sonder said. ‘Well, I guess we should consider the obvious.’
‘Which is?’ Luna asked.
‘Talking to Levistus,’ Sonder said.
We all turned to stare at him.
‘Look, he obviously wants something. Couldn’t we find out what it is?’
‘Uh,’ Luna said. ‘I think Levistus just made it pretty clear what he wants.’
‘No, all he did was pass a proposal,’ Sonder said. ‘Look, Council mages do this all the time. It’s a negotiating tactic. It’s just meant to force you to go to the table and work out a compromise.’
‘Sonder,’ I said, ‘do you know why Levistus is doing this?’
‘Well . . . I assume it’s something to do with what happened three years ago, right? With the fateweaver and Belthas . . .’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s about what happened this year. With White Rose.’
‘But Levistus wasn’t involved with White Rose,’ Sonder said.
We all looked at Sonder.
Sonder looked around. ‘Was he?’
‘I had a meeting with Levistus during the White Rose affair,’ I said. ‘Just before the indictment against Vihaela was issued. You were in Washington at the time. Levistus gave me a choice. Either I backed off White Rose, stopped going after them, or he’d destroy me. That was how he put it. And not just me, but all of my allies and friends as well. That’s what this is about. And the fateweaver and Belthas too, but mostly it’s White Rose. Levistus tried to make me follow his orders. I said no. People like him, they don’t forget something like that. He’s been storing it up, waiting. Now the bill’s come due.’
‘Translation: he wants us all dead.’ Luna said.
‘Okay, maybe we can do some kind of legal challenge,’ Sonder said. ‘I could go to the Conclave and—’
‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding,’ Variam said. ‘You think they’re going to overturn a Council resolution? In a week?’
‘It’s not impossible . . .’
‘Conclave is in recess until the new year,’ Variam said. ‘And even if it wasn’t, they don’t have the authority.’
‘There’ve been cases where they’ve vetoed a Council decision,’ Sonder said.
‘Like how many times? Twice in the past fifty years?’
‘There’s another way,’ Anne said quietly.
Luna, Variam and Sonder all turned to Anne in surprise. Anne’s so silent in these discussions that it’s easy to forget that she’s even there. ‘How?’ Luna asked.
Anne nodded at me. ‘That was what you were getting at with that question about dependents. Wasn’t it?’
The others looked at me questioningly. ‘The resolution applies to my dependents.’ I didn’t want to speak, but I forced myself to. ‘If you weren’t my dependents, it wouldn’t apply.’
‘You mean before the end of the week?’ Variam said.
‘It’s tight, but it’s possible.’
‘Wait a second,’ Luna broke in. ‘That’d help us. It wouldn’t help you.’
Variam frowned. ‘Yeah. I mean, that wouldn’t stop . . .’
I looked back at Variam silently.
I saw Variam’s expression change as he got it. ‘Oh, no. No way. You are not trying to do this self-sacrificing shit.’
‘I’m with Vari,’ Luna said. ‘We are not just giving up on you.’
‘It might be a good idea,’ Sonder said. ‘I mean, if—’
Variam pointed at Sonder. ‘Shut the fuck up!’
‘I just think we should look at the alternatives.’
Luna opened her mouth, and I could tell she was about to lose it. ‘Stop it,’ I said, putting steel into my voice. ‘We don’t have time for this. Not now.’
Luna’s eyes flashed, but she obeyed. ‘I’m not sacrificing anything,’ I said. ‘I’m going to work with Talisid to try to get this resolution blocked. But no matter what I do, there is a good chance it’s not going to work. If that happens, I want to have a backup plan. I’m not exposing any more of you to this than I have to.’
‘I don’t like it,’ Variam said with a frown.
‘I don’t care.’ I looked around the circle. ‘So, new issue. How can we get the three of you out of being my dependents by the deadline?’
There was a moment’s silence. ‘Well . . .’ Sonder said. ‘They could apprentice to another mage.’
‘I’m already apprenticed to another mage, you dumbarse,’ Variam said.
‘You know how long Council approval takes,’ I said. ‘Especially at this time of year. I don’t think we could get an apprenticeship approved in time, and even if we did, it wouldn’t change things. If they’re including Vari on the list, then it’s as good as saying that being someone else’s apprentice doesn’t stop me from being his sponsor.’
‘Wait!’ Sonder said. ‘That’s it!’
‘What?’ Luna said. From her expression she still wasn’t in a good mood.
‘We can’t get an apprenticeship though in time, but we can change a sponsor.’ Sonder looked excited. ‘Someone I know did it last year. I remember because it was just before I left for Washington. All you need is for one mage to testify that they’re taking responsibility for the sponsorship, and for two other mages to stand as witnesses.’
‘But how long would it take to go through?’ I said. ‘If it’s another . . .’
Sonder was shaking his head. ‘It doesn’t need Council approval. All you have to do is get it notarised by a representative from the apprentice programme.’
‘Vari?’ I said. ‘Does that sound right?’
‘Beats me,’ Variam said. ‘I know you can change it, but I dunno how.’
‘It’s legal,’ Sonder said. ‘I promise.’
I looked around. ‘Okay. So if we do this, who should we be asking?’
‘Landis,’ Luna said instantly.
I looked at Variam. ‘Would he be willing?’
Variam thought for a second, then nodded. ‘Yeah. Getting him to take on Luna and Anne’s going to take some convincing, but he’ll do it. He’s not going to leave them out in the cold.’
Landis is Variam’s master, and a Council Keeper. I remembered back when Variam wouldn’t have trusted a Keeper as far as he could throw him. For Variam to say something like that about Landis meant a lot. ‘Landis would be sponsoring me for the programme?’ Anne asked. ‘But I’m not even a member any more.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Sonder said. ‘You don’t have to be attending classes. You just have to not be sponsored by Alex.’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Sounds good. That just leaves one problem.’ My eyes rested on Luna.
‘It’ll work,’ Sonder said. ‘I’ve seen . . .’ He saw where I was looking and trailed off. ‘. . . Oh.’
‘Oh?’ Variam said. ‘Oh, what?’
‘What Sonder’s describing will work for you and Anne,’ I said. ‘Not for Luna.’
‘But Landis could . . .’ Variam stopped.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Even if Landis takes over her sponsorship, she’ll still be my apprentice. Which means she’ll still be on the hit list.’
‘Well . . .’ Sonder said. ‘You could get the apprenticeship dissolved.’
I felt a brief flash of anger. And that’s what you’ve been wanting, isn’t it? It had been the subject of one of the last conversations I’d had with Sonder, the previous year. He’d wanted Luna away from me, from my influence . . .
I saw Anne’s eyes turn to me and forced the feelings down. This wasn’t the time. ‘I don’t want to stop being Alex’s apprentice,’ Luna said. ‘Not like this.’
‘But if it’s the only way . . .’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘You know how slow Council courts are. By the time we’d brought a petition for dissolution, had it received, set a hearing, gone to the hearing, had the hearing resolved and had Luna entered into the records as an independent apprentice, we’d be dead five times over.’
‘What if you ran?’ Anne said.
‘You mean out of the country?’ Luna asked.
‘That could work,’ Variam said. ‘Just pick some place where they have crappy relations with the British Council so the Keepers can’t get an extradition.’
‘And while you’re gone, Alex could go through the courts with the dissolution,’ Sonder said. ‘Then you could come back afterwards.’
‘Sonder, if Luna has to run, it’ll be because the resolution’s gone through and is also applying to me,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to be in much of a position for court proceedings.’
‘I guess that could work,’ Luna said slowly, ‘but . . .’
‘Better exiled than dead,’ Variam said.
‘But then what?’ Luna said. ‘It’s not as though it’s going to expire, is it?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It won’t. If you do this – if any of us do this – we’ll be exiled until the Council decides to repeal the resolution. Which probably means for ever. We’ll never be able to come back to our old lives.’
‘I don’t want to do that,’ Luna said. ‘Not if there’s any other way.’
‘What other way?’ Variam said. ‘Because if this vote thing falls through, which seems pretty likely, then the Keepers are going to be showing up right at your door. And don’t think you can hide and wait for it to blow over. Catching people is what the Keepers do.’
‘I don’t like the idea of running away,’ Luna said.
‘There might not be a choice!’
‘Maybe there is.’
We all looked at Luna. ‘What are you talking about?’ Variam said.
‘The problem is that I’m Alex’s apprentice, right?’ Luna said. ‘What if we changed that?’
‘How would—?’ I began, then stopped.
Variam got it a second later. ‘Taking your journeyman tests?’
‘It’d work, wouldn’t it?’ Luna asked. ‘The resolution says Alex’s dependents. Well, if I’m a journeyman mage, then I can’t be anyone’s dependent.’
‘It would work . . .’ I said slowly, ‘but . . .’
‘No, it wouldn’t,’ Variam said. ‘Have you seen the waiting lists for those tests? They’re months long.’
‘Actually, they’re not,’ Luna said.
‘Okay,’ I said to Luna. ‘You’ve obviously got something in mind. Let’s hear it.’
‘Here’s the thing,’ Luna said. ‘I know your plan’s always been for me to take those tests someday, but I was worried that the Council would do something to block it. Claim I was an adept and wasn’t allowed, or something like that. So I went and looked up the laws. Turns out, any apprentice has got the right to demand to be tested as a journeyman. There are only three conditions.’ Luna held up her fingers, ticking them off one by one. ‘First, you have to be officially recognised by the Council as an apprentice. Done that. Second, you can’t be wanted for any crimes or breaches of the Concord. Done that too. Third, you have to have been sponsored for the apprentice programme and you have to have been attending classes for at least fifteen months. I’ve put in more than twice that long.’ Luna lowered her hand and looked around. ‘No requirement for Council approval. Doesn’t even say that you have to be a mage. It just says you have to be a recognised apprentice. I checked. And there’s a time limit. When you put in the request, you can demand for the tests to take place within a time window. The minimum you can ask for is five days.’ Luna raised her eyebrows. ‘It’s within the deadline.’
‘Okay, that might be what the law technically says,’ Sonder said. ‘But no one actually does it.’
‘No rule says you can’t.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Sonder said. ‘You couldn’t get the trial agreements done.’
‘No rule saying you need those, either.’
‘You two are losing us,’ I said. Both Variam and Anne were looking puzzled. ‘What are you getting at?’
‘Those waiting lists Vari was talking about?’ Luna said. ‘They’re not for the tests. They’re for the meetings with the mages setting the trials. The reason it takes so long is that they need to agree on what each trial’s allowed to contain. If you skip that part, you can jump the queue.’
‘Yeah, except that there wouldn’t be any restrictions on what you got,’ Sonder said.
Luna shrugged. ‘Not like we’d be able to get much out of them if we negotiated it anyway.’
‘That’s crazy,’ Sonder said. ‘They could send anything at you! They could kill you!’
‘Meh,’ Luna said. ‘They pretty much never kill apprentices in those tests any more. Last one was more than ten years ago and that was only because he had a heart condition.’
‘Wait,’ Anne said. ‘That’s supposed to be good news?’
‘Is it really that much more dangerous than the stuff we do anyway?’ Luna asked.
‘All right.’ I held up a hand. ‘Let me think a second.’
The four of them quieted, looking at me. ‘Luna,’ I said after a moment. ‘You’ve got a lesson with Chalice tomorrow morning, right?’
‘Then I’ll come along with you. If she thinks you’re ready, then we’ll go ahead with your plan.’
‘I don’t think this is a good idea,’ Sonder said.
‘Then please see if you can find anything better,’ I said. ‘For Luna, and for all of us. We don’t exactly have a lot of options here. You know a lot more mages who are experts on Council law than I do. If you can dig up anything that’d help us, we’d be very grateful.’
Sonder didn’t look happy, but he didn’t argue. ‘Vari,’ I said. ‘I’m guessing Landis’ll be going home after the party. Can you meet him there? Break the sponsorship transfer plan to him?’
‘Yeah,’ Variam said. He looked at Anne. ‘You’d better come too. He’s going to want to talk to you.’
‘Then that’s enough for tonight,’ I said. I was tired and having trouble concentrating. All of a sudden, I wanted to be on my own. ‘Let’s get some sleep.’
The others didn’t move. ‘What about you?’ Luna asked.
‘I’m going to be fighting the political angle with Talisid.’
‘With us,’ Variam said.
I sighed. ‘Yes, with you. Now come on. You’ve got things you should be doing.’
All four were reluctant, but I eventually got them moving, chivvying them out of the living room and down towards the storeroom and the small patch at the centre that had been cleared and box-warded for gates. Sonder was the most eager. Anne was the most reluctant; she lingered at the door and I think she would have stayed if Variam hadn’t been pressuring her to go. Luna went without protest, but she kept an eye on me, and I knew that she’d be expecting me tomorrow. It felt like a long time before the last gate closed and I was left alone in the storeroom.